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PM remains ‘committed to levelling up’ but refuses to comment on HS2 ‘speculation’

Rishi Sunak has refused to commit to building HS2 to Manchester but insisted that the government is committed to levelling up transport infrastructure across the country.

When asked about reports that HS2 will no longer go to Manchester, Mr Sunak said: “I’m not going to comment on that type of speculation.”

The Prime Minister told reporters during a visit to Broxbourne: “But what I would say is we’re absolutely committed to levelling up and spreading opportunity around the country, not just in the north, but in the Midlands andinallotherregionsofourfantasticcountry”.

HS2, first announced in 2012, has been the government’s flagship transport infrastructure project. It was unveiled as a national high-speed rail network to better connect the north of England to the south.

The project, initially reported to cost £32 billion, is now estimated to cost over £100 billion – two-thirds of the annual NHS budget. In the face of rising costs, the proposed line connecting Birmingham to Leeds was scrapped in 2021 and replaced with plans for local improvements, including a high-speed line from Birmingham to East Midlands Parkway.

Last week, the chancellor Jeremy Hunt said the costs of HS2 were getting “totally out of control” and the former transport secretary, Grant Shapps, told the BBC it would be “crazy” not to reassess whether the full HS2 rail project remains viable.

If the Manchester leg of HS2 is delayed or scrapped, the trains may only go as far north as Birmingham when HS2 launches.

Reports that Mr Sunak may delay or scrap the Manchester leg of HS2 have been met with fierce criticism from both Labour and Conservatives.

Responding to the news, the Labour mayor of greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, told Times Radio: “The Conservative party stood before voters here in Bolton and said, we will level you up, we will invest in the north of England, we will ensure that the north gets the same standard of infrastructure as elsewhere. And if they pull the plug, well quite frankly, those commitments that they made will be utterly meaningless.”

He added: “And I would say they shouldn’t really be taking this decision without calling a general election because it would just not be right for them to do what they’re reportedly planning to do when they do not have a mandate to do it.”

Conservative grandees George Osborne and Michael Heseltine said in a jointly written article in the Times: “It would be an act of huge economic self-harm, and be a decision of such short-sightedness, that we urge the prime minister: don’t do it.”

They added: “How could you ever again claim to be levelling up when you cancel the biggest levelling-up project in the country? It is difficult to conceive of a more damaging decision than cancelling a project that has been promised by six different British governments, and committed to in three election-winning manifestos”.